Mural counteracts pain and rebuilds hope

·6 min read

Correction required: Text replaced on paragraphs 3 and 5.

Coast Salish Eagle, Moon and Raven glow at night on the wall of Cedar Grove Elementary School, Squamish territory at Gibsons, B.C. They came to grace the walls during a time of grieving.

It’s a new mural by artist Bracken Hanuse Corlett. Organized by the Indigenous Education Department at School District 46, it included children in the process of painting.

Hanuse Corlett was at the school working with the children, pressure washing the wall to prep for the painting on Friday, June 25. That's when the news came of 751 children's graves uncovered at former residential school at Cowessess First Nation.

“These institutions were made to strip us of our culture, language and spiritual practice. The work I do today as an artist is just one small effort to counteract and rebuild from the trauma and pain that these places instilled,” said Hanuse Corlett.

It was surreal and sad to be with the children at a school as the news spread, he said.

The weekend passed, filled with more detailed news and stories. On Monday when the painting was set to begin, Hanuse Corlett could see the impact it was having on the kids.

“It was obvious some of the kids were having a hard time dealing with it, and were going on their own walks.”

It’s always been a difficult subject for Hanuse Corlett, whose family attended residential schools.

“Residential schools are a legacy that's still very present in my family. I know most families have a lot of trauma around it and our family (does) for sure,” he says.

“It's had such a terrible impact on us even on where we all live. We're all separated as a result of that.”

There were no Indigenous teachers on staff at Cedar Grove Elementary, so Hanuse Corlett found himself leaned on more than usual for the seven days he was at the school.

“It's not the easiest thing to do. It's a very emotional thing. And to talk about that to a group of kids and then go right back into painting. But I did it.”

“I can't just be quiet or say ‘I don't want to talk about this right now’. So I just tried my best to keep myself as positive as I could be, but also really emphasizing that it is a really horrible and dark thing that's not just in the past. It's still a present day thing.”

Hanuse Corlett is from Wuikinuxv and Klahoose Nations, and has been working for more than 20 years at his art, ranging from painting and drawing with digital-media, audio-visual performance, animation, narrative and script writing. For the past 10 years, Hanuse Corlett’s work has included workshops with youth in a variety of mediums.

He has studied Northwest Coast art, learning carving and design from acclaimed Heiltsuk artists Bradley Hunt and his sons Shawn Hunt and Dean Hunt.

Hanuse Corlett’s pathway as an artist involved reconnecting to his communities and with his family. Even when doing research and museum visits, it included learning from art made by his family and community members.

His uncle Chief Dennis Hanuse recently passed away, but gave him guidance to draw inspiration from their culture.

“My Uncle Dennis really always reinforced, right up until his last days, to look back at the old work and try to work in that mode. And that sticks with me as a responsibility.”

Hanuse Corlett likes to work in large format, and uses colour to help tell the story.

“I wanted to make something accessible. I didn't want to make it overly conceptual or heavy,” he said. He would rather keep the conversation open with the youth, and talk about why he’s using certain shapes or colours.

While painting together, he shared some of the stories around the characters, the Raven, the Eagle and the Moon.

The subjects of the mural communicate themes of strength and connection to the Creator and/or the Sun. The Crescent Moon reminds us of ancestral ways, especially around timing.

“I really liked it because a lot of kids would come up and ask some pretty deep questions about the mural.”

His response was receptive, saying ‘Yeah, that could totally be what it is. It doesn't have to be what I think it is.’

“So I really like it being open.”

Working with youth is different than working alone in his studio, he said. When he’s painting alone, he finds himself thinking of his family or entering a prayerful mindset as taught by a mentor, Della Owens.

With kids, it’s more about making himself available, answering questions.

“They're helping paint, but you know, sometimes they would paint over the lines or spill paint and I say ‘It's all good. I make mistakes, too. That's part of the process’.”

Art making was one half of the shared experience this time.

Communicating reconciliation is complicated to Hanuse Corlett, who has his reservations about what reconciliation means coming from the government and church.

“The thing about me is I'm actually very cynical about some of the processes of ‘reconciliation’ and things like the government ‘trying to do the right thing or whatever these days, or the church.”

“But being around kids and seeing how they were responding gave me hope too, just that they even knew about this and were talking about it. I think it's very different than it would have been when I was a kid.”

The project was intense, and afterward Hanuse Corlett took a couple days to just rest, play some music and be quiet.

“It was intense, but it also gave me quite a boost, hope, actually, for this next generation of kids.”

It was the children’s idea to include orange squares, and it was mostly the younger children who helped paint in the orange.

“The whole statement of the orange shirt, I don't want it to be something that's tokenized or how sometimes things like that will end up losing their meaning.”

So Hanuse Corlett talked to the kids about the responsibility of putting this color onto the mural.

“Not just for aesthetics or to say that you care. It means that you're actually going to do something to help or to take action.”

Eagle, Raven and Moon gives back the energy Hanuse Corlett and the children of Cedar Grove Elementary shared, for everyone to consider.

“Raven sometimes offers a reflection for us to look within,” said Hanuse Corlett.

By Odette Auger, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker,

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